One of the best human qualities is our intelligence, which enables us to judge what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, what is beneficial and what is harmful. Negative thoughts, such as anger and strong attachment, destroy this special human quality; this is indeed very sad. When anger or attachment dominates the mind, a person becomes almost crazed… Under their power we commit all kinds of acts—often having far-reaching and destructive consequences. A person gripped by such states of mind and emotion is like a blind person, who cannot see where he is going. Yet we neglect to challenge these negative thoughts and emotions that lead to near insanity. On the contrary, we often nurture and reinforce them! By doing so we are, in fact, making ourselves prey to their destructive power. When you reflect along these lines, you will realize that our true enemy is not outside ourselves. – Dalai Lama
Increasingly, this nation founded by individuals dedicated to rational enlightenment and as a haven from intolerant religion is drifting toward the legitimization of irrational politics manifesting many of the characteristics of irrational intolerant religion. Within our political discussion there is, among a growing segment of our population, an embrace of bitter anger for anger’s sake and for attachment to opinions that have no basis in fact. In both this type of politics and this type of religion, beliefs are held because they appeal to the dangerous human tendency towards sectarianism where those who are not members of the sect are held in suspicion and fear. What is believed to be true and not true is determined by what the clergy (in this case politicians, media figures and politicized clergy) say is true and not true. It is not surprising that there is a great overlap of those who identify with both this type of religion and this type of politics.
This is not an entirely new phenomenon in American history; it is, in fact, a continual thread where intolerance, resistance to progress, economic inequity and militarism runs strong, whipped into frenzy with emotional sloganeering devoid of factual basis. Should we fail, however, to address our very real problems with intelligence and humility, the consequences will be deep and long lasting . This sectarianism threatens to fracture our society and to steer its national purpose away from addressing commonly shared needs and challenges, diverting energy from rational address of very real problems toward emotional posturing over issues of political dogma. Already, the summoning of common will to deal with our society’s problems has become nearly impossible and the current political climate threatens to make it even more so. On issues of the economy, the environment, international relations, our political process, immigration, and social-and-economic inclusiveness, intolerance of honest debate, even the denial of scientific fact is steering this group’s political agenda. Ideology has become taken as truth because the leadership says it is so, and an echo-chamber of slogans substitutes for intelligent discussion. Why is this happening?
We live in times of unprecedented change. The speed with which technology, economic centralization, globalization and shifting demographics are affecting particularly the white working class’s sense of place and security in the society in which they once felt secure is evoking a disorientation and fear that makes for easy manipulation by those who would use their familiar symbols as rallying cries to stop needed change. Rallying around conservative religion, guns, military strength and adventurism, getting government and its taxes out of their lives, restoring and taking back “our country,” and severely limiting immigration are all seductive and intoxicating arguments when shilled by bombastic preachers of fear and anger whose real motives are power and the entrenchment of those who currently profit from holding the economy and society in their control. Anxiety and fear about the future is well-founded, only it is those who are the real cause of this insecurity who are pointing fingers and diverting the anger upon those who are not.
We are making the catastrophic error of dumbing down our politics and our social agenda, of confusing cleverness at advancing and defending self-interest and sectarian dogmas as intelligence. Nothing could be further from the truth. True intelligence, as The Dalai Lama said, “enables us to judge what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, what is beneficial and what is harmful.” To build a society based in respectful inclusiveness and fair sharing of the society’s wealth and benefits is wholesome. To allow a small oligarchy of wealth to control our economy and social agenda towards their own benefit at the expense of the common people is unwholesome. To ignore pressing problems that threaten catastrophic consequences such as environmental degradation, climate change, a middle-class being pushed toward poverty while the impoverished are completely marginalized and our infrastructure goes neglected is harmful. To divert political energy from a healthy society’s highest priority which is to provide economic security and opportunity for betterment to as wide and diverse a circle of the population as possible is not only harmful, it is crazy.
These priests of radical conservatism use the same tactics and strategies that every corrupt and power-hungry leadership has used throughout history. We should be able to recognize the themes. They lie about the nature of our problems and who is responsible, and they do so with a shrillness and urgency that intensifies the unease and suspicion that people already feel because their lives are indeed insecure. This insecurity is ginned into fear and anger, and the people and the society becomes almost crazed. “When anger or attachment dominates the mind, a person becomes almost crazed… Under their power we commit all kinds of acts—often having far-reaching and destructive consequences.”
Real debate and discussion of the society’s problems is rejected, substituted with accusations of weakness, lies and even treachery projected on those who hold differing views and those who would dare to question. Complex problems are reduced to simple equations with the political opposition and the scapegoat populations as the culprits to blame. “We neglect to challenge these negative thoughts and emotions that lead to near insanity. On the contrary, we often nurture and reinforce them!” Shrill accusation and blame replaces intelligent political debate without any consideration for what is true and what is not true. “By doing so we are, in fact, making ourselves prey to their destructive power.” This is all very disheartening and frightening to those who want to engage in a positive and inclusive political process towards addressing pressing and real problems that will determine the quality of the future for all.
Buddhism recognizes compassion, equanimity, charity, humility, non-judgmentalism, and above all, discernment into the truth of what is as marks of intelligence. The truth of what is tells us that we need to have faith in our ability to be increasingly enlightened – that is open-minded and inclusive – as individuals and as a society. It is very telling that whereas Americans once looked to the future in utopian terms, now it is almost always a dystopian future portrayed in our literature and scientific projections. The current celebration of anger, hatred and misplaced blame as the mainstay of the political right-wing’s agenda points us only in such a dystopian direction.
Buddhism calls upon right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration (The Eightfold Path) as the guide to wisdom, peace and happiness – as the essence of intelligence. While the political right drapes itself with words like morality and patriotism, Buddhism looks to these principles, regarded as virtues, in which the adjective “right” is not some moralistic judgment, but rather a discerning quality that can see things as they are and knows that only through recognizing and respecting the interdependence and interconnectedness of all people, and in fact, of all life, can we live virtuous and happy lives. Intelligent inquiry into the “what is” of life is its cornerstone.
The Buddhism I present here is not a proselytizing religion, but rather a philosophy, a psychology of proven guides to liberating humans from suffering and ignorance. It welcomes questioning and challenge. It welcomes sincere people of any religious or national orientation to test its principles and adopt what shows its merit rationally. It suggests that we explore for ourselves the validity of its teachings. It recognizes compassion, generosity, kindness, empathy, the application of mindful awareness and discerning intelligence as our highest human qualities, while aggression, anger, greed, selfishness, prejudice and hatred are our greatest threats. This is a teaching proven true in our personal lives and our collective historic experience over and over again. The happiest, most peaceful and stable societies manifest these virtues as do the happiest, most peaceful and stable individuals. This cannot be denied. It is in the application of open-minded intelligence that this assertion is validated – and it is in holding our political discussion and our government to the standard of these virtues that we have the best chance for a quality, even utopian, future for all.